Friday, April 30, 2010

Saigon's Fall, 35 Years Later/Guilt and Death, North and South

The New York Times


April 30, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor

Saigon’s Fall, 35 Years Later



DEPENDING on which side you were on, Saigon either fell on April 30, 1975, or it was liberated. Inside Vietnam, the day is marked as Liberation Day — but outside, among the Vietnamese refugees, it is called Deep Resentment Day. (The resentment is not just over losing a war, but also a country.)


On April 21, 1975, I was 11 and living in Saigon. I turned on the television and saw our president, Nguyen Van Thieu. He had a high forehead, a sign of intelligence, and long ears, indicating longevity. He had a round face with a well-defined jaw — the face of a leader — unlike his main rival, Nguyen Cao Ky, who resembled a cricket with a mustache. Thieu said, “At the time of the peace agreement the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis, but the United States did not keep its word. Is an American’s word reliable these days?”


Growing up in Saigon, I did not witness the war, only its apparatus: tanks, jeeps, jets. I often heard the rhythmic, out-of-breath phuoc phuoc phuoc of chopper blades rotating overhead. As it did for many Americans, the war came to me mainly through the news media. Open a newspaper and you would see Vietcong corpses lying in disarray. Turn on the radio and you could hear how our side was winning. Saigon theaters even showed American movies of World War II. Saigonese could sit in air-conditioning and watch expensively staged war scenes.


We considered the VC little more than a nightmare, a rumor, a bogeyman for scaring children. Once, in Saigon’s Phu Lam neighborhood, I saw four blindfolded men standing on a military truck, but there was no way to tell if they were really VC. If someone took a bad photo, you said, “You look just like a VC!” Only after April 30, 1975, did Saigonese realize there were plenty of VC among them.


Before the government fell, my father arranged for me and my brother to flee the country with a Chinese family. He sent his secretary along to take care of us. This secretary was 22, Chinese, with a very short temper, her face round and puffy. Sister Ha, as I called her, would later become my stepmother.


Before I left, my father gave me $2,000, saying, “Two thousand bucks should last you a year.” American bills, I noticed, were less colorful than Vietnamese ones, though longer and crisper. After sewing the money into the hem of my blue shorts, made of rayon and extremely hot, my grandmother advised, “Whatever you do, don’t take these shorts off.”


Before boarding the plane, I stayed at an American compound for four days. On the evening of April 27, I got on a C-130 to fly to Guam. Sitting next to Sister Ha, I watched a kid eat raw instant noodles. When the plane landed, it was pitch dark. No one knew a thing about Guam; we knew only that we had left Vietnam behind.


Linh Dinh is the author of the forthcoming novel “Love Like Hate.”


April 30, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor

Guilt and Death, North and South


Hanoi, Vietnam

AT noon on April 30, 1975, when news that the liberation forces had captured Saigon spread to the North, we thought: “The war has ended. Now happiness will immediately arrive.” All of us, the youth volunteers of Hanoi who were digging a big lake in the suburbs, were allowed to go home, and the next day was May Day, a holiday.


I was so thrilled to head home and enjoy my afternoon off. National flags were flying everywhere. Young people cheered and chanted, “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!”


But then the image of a friend who had been in the North Vietnamese special forces appeared in my mind. He had been among 1,000 soldiers who had gone out to fight together, and one of only four who returned. Their mission had been to ambush dangerous Saigonese agents — and sometimes Americans.


Soon after his return, he and I sat together on a pile of straw, and he told me a war story. He and his group had happened upon some Americans, who started shooting. My friend and his comrades had been ordered to avoid capture, even at the cost of their lives, so they tried to escape. The Americans were drunk, but chased after them. When one American was about to jump on one of our soldiers, my friend stabbed the man from behind and he fell, mortally wounded.


My friend turned him over on the ground and saw his young and handsome face. “Mama,” the man said before dying — the same word so many of our own soldiers uttered before they died. My friend’s heart tightened and, from then on, he said, he could never forget the American’s cry.


No one could understand why my friend later decided to return to battle. I’m told that he was killed somewhere in the jungle. Only years afterward did I come to believe that after hearing the plea of the dying American, he had felt guilty about living. But why did I think of him that day, at that moment, among the cheers?


Phan Thanh Hao is a poet and translator.



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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